The road to safe police vehicles

While law enforcement fatalities increased 14 percent in the first half of 2011, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in conjunction with the Concerns of Police Survivors reported an item of good news: The number of officers killed in traffic-related incidents declined 17 percent and was seven fewer than the first half of 2010.

Traffic-related incidents had been the leading cause of law enforcement fatalities for 13 consecutive years prior to 2011. In the first half of 2011, firearms-related fatalities out-paced traffic-related fatalities as the primary cause of law enforcement deaths. Forty officers were shot and killed, compared to 35 officers who died in traffic-related incidents.

Of the 21 killed in automobile crashes, 13 were involved in an assistance activity, six were killed in accidents relating to criminal activity, and two were killed en route to or from work in their patrol vehicles.

Today’s vehicles are doing a better job of keeping officers safe, and police vehicles continue to improve.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety President Adrian Lund, Ph.D., spoke of 50 years of progress in highway safety at this year’s Edmunds’ Safety Conference. Lund notes overall, motor vehicle crash death rates nationwide fell to a low of 11.3 deaths per billion miles of travel in 2009 (the most recent year for which data is available).

Lund credits federal motor vehicle safety standards, state seat belt laws, changed public perception on issues like drunken driving, graduated licensing laws and improved road designs.

Other not-so-intentional influences including economic downturns also contribute to lower fatality rates, he says presumably because “people are cutting down on discretionary driving, and the remaining travel is less risky.”

Furthermore, he says vehicle design and safety equipment have been key: Federal motor vehicle safety standards immediately required safety belts and energy-absorbing steering columns as standard equipment. Fuel tank integrity requirements, established in 1967, were upgraded in 1976 and again in 2003. Automatic protection was required for unbelted occupants beginning in 1986, and frontal air bags became the principal method of compliance. Side impact protection was upgraded in 1990, with dynamic testing specified. Roof strength requirements were established in 1971 and upgraded in 2009.

“A major boost for vehicle crash worthiness began in 1978, when NHTSA for the first time made comparative safety test information available to the public,” he points out. Lund says the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) opened “the safety marketplace,” offering consumers third-party information on how well various car models are likely to protect people in crashes. IIHS, a nonprofit scientific organization dedicated to reducing the losses from crashes on the nation’s highways, joined the consumer education effort in 1995 and others have followed suit.

“Overall vehicles are much safer now than they were even 10 years ago,” Russ Rader, IIHS vice president of communications, says. Crash tests have helped push manufacturers to design better vehicles and compete with one another to engineer the safest vehicle, he says.

At NAFA’s annual expo, individuals responsible for law enforcement fleets discuss safety concerns with manufacturers. NAFA (National Association of Fleet Administrators), a non-profit vehicle fleet management association, has a public safety group (formerly the law enforcement group).

“There’s a very open line of communication between us,” says George Schwarz, NAFA’s public safety group chairman and Camp Hill Borough Police Department fleet advisor in Pennsylvania. Schwarz compliments manufacturers, saying they all make safety a high priority. “Manufacturers invest a great deal of time and money to meet and even beat crash worthiness standards set by the federal government,” he adds.

Rader says safety features added in the past decade that are making the biggest difference are side air bags and electronic stability control (ESC).

“ESC is probably the most important safety feature that drivers have never heard of, and it’s standard in all new SUVs and virtually all cars,” he says. IIHS explains ESC continuously monitors how well a vehicle responds to a driver’s steering input, selectively applies the vehicle brakes, and modulates engine power to keep the vehicle traveling along the path indicated by the steering wheel position. This helps prevent sideways skidding and loss of control that can lead to rollovers.

Other features and options may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Here’s a sample of some of them by police vehicle model.

Ford’s new Interceptor

The Ford Police Interceptor, which replaces the Crown Victoria when production of the Crown Victoria ends in late 2011, passes 75 mph rear-end crash tests and rates five stars in all NHTSA crash tests (based on 2010 model-year evaluations).

Heavy-duty hydroformed steel body-on-frame construction means the Police Interceptor’s rugged body is secured to a separate frame and built like many full-size pickups. Extra reinforcement and durable steel frame rails create a safe environment for the police officer.

Standard features include front-seat side air bags, a tire pressure monitoring system, side-intrusion door beams, power-adjustable pedals and Ford’s Personal Safety System, which combines multiple technologies including dual-stage front air bags, safety belt pretensioners, safety belt energy-management retractors, safety belt usage sensors, driver’s seat position sensor, and a crash severity sensor.

Police Interceptor options include a fire suppression system, factory-installed ballistic front door panels, traction control and Ford’s Custom-Fit Trunk Pack, which reduces the possibility of equipment pushing into the back seat, and lessens the risk of equipment penetrating the fuel tank in the event of a high-speed rear impact. The drop-in design is composed of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) with a protective DuPont Kevlar barrier on the front face. (For more on the Ford Interceptor, see Page 31.)

Charger Pursuit

The Dodge Charger Pursuit was named a top safety pick by IIHS for 2011 based on outstanding crash worthiness in front, side, rollover and rear tests, and standard electronic stability control.

Other standard safety features of the Charger Pursuit include full-length side curtain air bags, seat-mounted side thorax air bags, driver’s knee bag, front-row reactive head restraints, and a tire pressure monitoring system. The advanced multi-stage driver and front-passenger air bags match air bag output to crash severity. Side-curtain air bags protect front and rear outboard passengers. The driver’s knee air bag reduces lower leg injuries during a frontal collision.

Brenna Kaufman, a Charger model chief engineer, points out the body of the Charger Pursuit was designed to be stronger with more high-strength steel. A unibody construction reflects the increased use of high-strength steel, with yield strengths exceeding 50 kilograms per square inch.

To address a concern expressed by the brand’s police advisory board, the safety cage now has smaller pillars. A redesign of glass and mirror placement also have improved visibility. (For more on the Charger, flip back to Page 33.)

Caprice

Chevrolet’s Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle hit the streets this year with a body structure that’s nearly 50 percent high-strength steel (designed to absorb energy and dissipate it away from the vehicle occupants), and door-side guard beams of boron steel.

The 2011 Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle has six air bags. New for 2012 is rollover protection to cushion head, shoulders and upper body in the event of a rollover accident. Also, knee air bags will be added below the steering column and below the glove box to protect knees and lower extremities during a moderate to severe frontal impact. That brings the total number of air bags for 2012 to eight.

Dana Hammer, manager of Chevrolet law enforcement vehicles, emphasizes seat belts and belt pretensioners aid air bag effectiveness by keeping the occupants in place, in their upright position.

“If officers aren’t belted in, the air bags are going to help somewhat, but they’re not going to do their job properly because they were designed for a person wearing a seat belt,” Hammer says.

In the event of a crash, the electric fuel pump turns off, as does the heating and ventilation fan. Four-way hazard flashers turn on and doors unlock. If the electrical system has a short circuit, that too is shut down to help reduce the chance of a spark or ignition. (For more on the Chevy Caprice, see Page 30.)

Upfitting safety

Schwarz says upfitting the police car of yesteryear with safety equipment meant installing a light with an incandescent bulb and a siren.

Modern vehicles have much more, from highly visible emergency LED lighting, auxiliary bumpers, computers, printers, weapon racks and speed-timing devices to prisoner partitions.

While today’s police vehicles are safer and create “a safety cocoon for officers,” Steve Contarino, vice president of vehicle operations at Adamson Industries Corp., says it’s the job of a qualified modification center to keep the interior space safe for officers and protect officers from aftermarket equipment.

Contarino says inspections are made to ensure the installing technician, safety, quality control, and function. Examples of aftermarket equipment installed include: Air bag-compliant prisoner partitions, center-mounted weapon racks that are recessed into the prisoner partitions, air bag-compliant laptop computer mounting stands, padded console-mounted arm rests, sirens that change tones via the steering wheel, and over-head microphones that keep officers’ hands on the steering wheel.

Exterior installations include new high-reflective anti-collision strips on the rear bumper and a “cruiser visibility kit” that marks the underside of the trunk lid, the inside of all four doors, and the front and rear bumpers with highly reflective pressure-sensitive material.

Future

While the future of police vehicles in many respects will be brighter, Lund does not foresee a crash-free environment. “The primary problem for safety professionals in road crashes is the transfer of mechanical energy to or from occupants at rates that exceed their injury thresholds,” he says. “Until cars do not crash, we need to reduce the rates of energy change.”

Rader explains the primary way engineers do this is by designing vehicle structures that crush in ways that manage the crash energy and keep it away from the occupant compartment. “Vehicle restraint systems like safety belts and air bags are designed to spread forces over a larger area of the body to reduce the risk of injury,” he says.

In the future, technology will also be used to help drivers avoid crashes. ESC is one example. Rader points out most of the latest features like lane departure warning, forward collision warning with automatic braking, and blind zone detection haven’t been in vehicles long enough to be evaluated.

While vehicle safety may not always be an easy goal, it’s a goal many continually work to achieve.

A freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics, Rebecca Kanable can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

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